Let us pray:
Open our ears and our hearts, O Lord, to discover your Scriptures. Speak to us today, each of us what we need to hear. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I think we’ve all seen trailers for this kind of movie, where it’s raining fire, buildings are collapsing left and right, people are dying of terrible diseases and fighting with each other for every scrap.
That’s what we think of when we think of apocalypse: of destruction and horrors and dramatic stages of further destruction. We know the images that get thrown around, of horsemen and monsters and the number 666.
Everything I just mentioned is in the Bible, don’t get me wrong. In a literal sense, it is all described–but apocalyptic literature isn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s all symbols, and not necessarily descriptions of what will physically happen one day.
Take this vision described in Daniel. We’ve all heard parts of Daniel: the three men thrown in the furnace for refusing to worship an idol. Daniel thrown in the lions’ den. Maybe the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast. It tells the story of exile, of how to be faithful in a new context, a context where Judaism wasn’t assumed. It encourages the people of Israel to continue on even when they have lived through terrible tragedy, been ripped from their home and continue to be persecuted.
And part of the encouragement is apocalyptic visions.
The vision we’re reading from today is only one of the visions in Daniel. They’re all apocalyptic, that is to say, weird and highly symbolic. And our passage is actually the end of the vision: before we begin reading, Daniel is by a river. An angel comes to him; Daniel is overcome, and is only gradually given the strength to receive the vision. Then Daniel sees history playing out, the clashing of armies and the destruction of kings, driven by the arrogance of those who claim to be gods. Seven kings rise and fall according to God’s plan.
And here we join Daniel. After the seventh king has fallen, the angel Michael will begin acting. There will be a time of great trial–what, exactly, is never specified, but the visions before showed Israel persecuted after the trauma of the Exile, so the trial must be something truly terrible. But then every faithful person will be delivered–even those who have already died will “awake”, and be judged. Those who have been faithful will receive everlasting life, and the unfaithful “everlasting contempt.”
Daniel is told to write these words down, and then to hide them–or perhaps protect them. When he asks the angels how long until what he’s seen will happen, the angel says, “a time, two times, and half a time,” which is typical apocalyptic language and a long and complicated way to say three and a half times. Most scholars say a time is a year. Three and a half years, then.
The angel concludes by telling Daniel that some will strive for wisdom, and some will instead choose to remain wicked. Blessed are they who persevere until the vision is fulfilled! Until it comes to pass: be faithful.
I mean, weird, right? (and trust me, this isn’t the weirdest apocalyptic vision in the Bible, or even in Daniel)
It’s important to remember, though, that the vision was meant for Jews in exile, who had been persecuted and ripped from their home after seeing it destroyed. That is, they were longing for justice, for those who caused such destruction to receive their just rewards. This vision of the world’s destruction is then a comfort, because that means God will come and make right what has become warped and wrong about the world. Those who have remained faithful to God will be rewarded, and those who devastated God’s people would be judged.
We may not have such a visceral experience with injustice that we long to have repaired by God, but we still know that the world is full of pain and suffering. We know that the world isn’t right and just.
And, most of all, we know that we can turn to God in the midst of it all–that God is faithful and just and merciful. Apocalyptic literature isn’t just comforting because we remember that someday God will right all wrongs; it reminds us, too, that God is present in the world today, working for God’s plan in the midst of everyday life. It reminds us that we are called, right now, to follow God–in the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of upheavals and calamities. No matter how difficult it may be, God is calling us to live well, to feed the hungry and care for the poor, to pray and worship, to love our families and friends and neighbors–no matter what else may be happening around us, no matter how calamitous it is. God will take care of the rest.
Alleluia, and Amen.